Is the Wuhan hospital built in 10 days raising the bar

Caoilfhinn Hegarty looks at the hospital built in Wuhan in 10 days as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak and asks how has the Irish government failed to deliver in ten years what the Chinese have done in ten days?

Since the outbreak of the Coronavirus at the start of the year, now officially named COVID 19, the eyes of the world media have been focused on China. Much has been made of the extreme response the Chinese government has taken towards tackling the situation, in particular the building of an entire hospital between the 23rd of January and 2nd of February. The feat feels especially unbelievable in Ireland, where the government has been attempting to build a new children's hospital for the best part of a decade. 

On the 19th of March 2019, the construction of a new National Children’s Hospital received yet another setback in the form of a resignation of its project director John Pollock. It was the most recent high-profile resignation from a project that has received criticism and controversy since its inception. Originally proposed in 1993, the drive to establish a single children’s hospital for the capital has been plagued with budget issues and delays. Intended to combine the services of several existing pediatric hospitals in Dublin, such as Crumlin, Temple Street, and Our Lady’s Children’s Hospital, the building of the new hospital was originally proposed to be on the site of the Mater Hospital, but due to a lack of planning permission it was moved to the St. James’s Hospital instead. This proved to be an unpopular decision, with concerns raised over whether the new site was accessible enough. In particular, it was criticised for being hard to reach by people traveling from rural areas. It took until 2016 for planning permission to finally be granted. 

The National Children’s Hospital has now become infamous as an example of government mismanagement, particularly of public funds. Originally budgeted at €650 million, in 2017 it was revealed that the total cost of the hospital would be a staggering €1.73 billion. The disorganisation has only been highlighted by the string of resignations, of which Pollock was the fifth. The hospital was intended to be finished this year, but has now been pushed further into the Summer of 2021. The question raised is: how has the Irish government failed to deliver in ten years what the Chinese have done in ten days? And is it a fair comparison? 

The circumstances under which these two hospitals are required are wildly different. The hospital in China, Huoshenshan, is a purpose built medical facility designed to tackle an epidemic. The Coronavirus has already killed over a thousand people since it was first reported to the World Health Organisation on December 31st 2019, and currently has over 60,000 cases. Huoshenshan is not intended to serve as a public hospital, rather it was specifically constructed to relieve the hospitals already serving the city of Wuhan, allowing them to concentrate on providing regular medical services. Unlike a children’s hospital catering to a variety of people with different needs, Huoshenshan is only required to be able to treat one kind of patient. There is also no reason to assume it will continue to be used once the epidemic ceases to be a threat. In 2003, during the outbreak of SARS, the Chinese government pulled off a similar achievement when Xiaotangshan Hospital was built in seven days, but it was only in use for less than two months before being abandoned. By contrast, The New Children’s Hospital in Dublin is intended not only as a permanent, place of work where ‘excellence in multidisciplinary clinical care, education and research’ will be provided, it is also meant to serve as a status symbol. The project’s official webpage promises a ‘world class academic teaching hospital’, and is keen to emphasise the employment opportunities it will provide in the future, as well as the benefits it will provide to the local community. This is a far cry from the utilitarian quarantine and treatment centre currently being overseen by the state military in China. 

The temporary nature of the hospital in Wuhan is largely what allowed it to be built so quickly, and at a significantly lower cost. It’s made entirely out of prefabricated structures mass produced in factories, which are then bolted together. Because of this, as soon as the units are in place they are ready to be furnished. However these speed-assembled hospitals have a service life of only three years before they can no longer be safely used, perfect for quickly being pressed into service in an emergency, but entirely unsuitable in the long-term. The New Children’s Hospital is hoped to be in-use for decades, and so it has been built to last: beginning with a superstructure of steel girders and concrete before any of the interior can be built. An added consideration is that the building should be attractive, inside and out. In Wuhan aesthetics were not a priority. 

Finally, the elephant in the room: China’s system of government. However one might feel about China’s communist leadership, one massively useful consequence of such a top-down, authoritarian system is that if the government wants to redirect over 7,000 workers to Wuhan and commandeer a couple of factories to create hospital parts, there is little to nothing in their way. The New Children’s Hospital has been delayed countless times by objections from interest groups and disagreements between the boards of existing children’s hospitals. The dark side of Chinese efficiency is a disregard for basic labour standards, several workers interviewed by the state television network reported that they had only slept for two hours in the last three days. 

At the end of the day, trying to criticise the Irish Government by holding up Huoshenshan Hospital's lightning-fast construction as an example is not an argument that will hold a lot of water. It is so much more damning to compare it to other hospitals built under similar circumstances, such as the 2017 opening of a highly modern children’s hospital in Hamburg, which was built within it’s three year schedule and finished under-budget. Attempting to compare the New Children’s Hospital to a temporary structure made out of pre-fabs by workers who were subject to inhumane hours is such a flawed argument that it almost let’s our government away with it’s incompetence.